What are we going to do about this?

Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Mon Oct 21 15:21:51 CDT 1996

As this is a topic I've chimed in on repeatedly in the past, no need to
break from tradition...

James H. Beach wrote:
> Roger Hyam writes:
> >My understanding of the problems in taxonomy are that the only way
> >to carry out an alpha taxonomy is to spend some time getting it all
> >in your head, do a bit of specimen shuffling, see them in the field
> >and then write it all down. If you get time you can do a
> >phylogenetic analysis of it as well (once everything is in nice
> >little boxes that you can use as terminals). The problem is that for
> >larger groups it may take longer than 3 years to get it all in your
> >head. As it is rare for research grants to last for even three and a
> >half years the larger groups just aren't going to be studied and the
> >majority of "species" are in larger groups.
> >
> >What are we going to do about this?
> I found this to be a thought provoking comment, although not a novel
> concern, it is certainly one systematists should be thinking about every
> day -- as the planet's biota fades out.
> 1. What are some truly salational steps that could be taken to accelerate
> the initial biodiversity survey of the planet and the rapid development of
> the initial classifications and phylogenies for incompletely studied
> groups?

This is one I raised here before, and at the time (and still) it struck
me that the most significant step forward for alpha taxonomy would be the
establishment of an *independent* source of funding - rather than
increasingly pitiful struggles to compete with molecular systematics for
the ever-dwindling slice of (insert favorite National-level funding
agency here)'s pie. Alpha taxonomy cannot be done without paying the
salaries of people devoted essentially solely to alpha taxonomy, and as
was pointed out, three-year grants are NOT adequate for this purpose,
especially when the odds are 1 in 50 that one can *get* a grant to do
alpha taxonomy.

> 2. How do systematists convince society that their research problem is
> relevant and thereby obtain more financial resources?

A more interesting question. In the past, it has been pointed out that
we are taken for granted, and what we need to do is force people to
deal with us in such a way that they are compelled to recognize the
value of our services. In my mind, it keeps coming back to requiring that
we all *unify* in some functional manner; if some of us begin to charge
fees for identification and others do not, we accomplish nothing; if some
of us treat keys as proprietary information and others publish them, the
same problem exists. On the whole, it seems this is impossible (would we
shut down all the entomological extension offices in the world, for
example?), and more likely to backfire than to help, were we to attempt
it. Folks with no systematic training at all could always open up
"identification services" to compete at cheaper prices, and even an
undescribed species can run through a key and have a name stuck on it.
Again, unless we can figure a way to create an organization whose sole
purpose is to solicit financial support for alpha taxonomy and distribute
the money to alpha taxonomists, I don't think we'll be able to make any

> 3. How does society convince systematists that they should do relevant
> research and thereby feel the investment is worthwhile?

That's not the task of society, that's the task of the funding agencies
and the Universities and such who evaluate faculty on the basis of the
size of their grants. If NSF issued a directive that all systematic
research had to involve taxonomic revision, and yield species-level
descriptions, lists of synonymies, and keys, that would change things
quite a bit - if they further changed things so that time frames were
flexible but budgets had a limit (the opposite of the present trend),
this would help things even more. I don't expect that sort of thing to
happen any time soon, let alone *anywhere* down the road.

Anyway, if folks feel I'm unduly pessimistic, I'll gladly yield to
Doug Yanega
UFMG, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

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